S.M.A.R.T

For years and years hard disks have been labelled with “S.M.A.R.T. enabled” and yet no O/S that i know of reports this stuff in a meaningful way.

Yes, yes, I know, most disk failures happen due to catastrophic hardware failure (hardly surprising if you think about what we do to disks, the conditions they operate in, lack of environmental control, etc). Still, if just one time in ten a disk can tell me that it’s in the process of dying, it might save me some hassle.

Consequently i’m now running SMART Reporter on my work machine. It’s unobtrusive, tiny in memory, and free… a combination that’s hard to beat. It’s set up to send me mail if it notices anything odd happening on any of the disks.

All of which makes me wonder why OS X doesn’t automatically do this? Surely it would be a simple thing to have as part of the system – after all, SMART Reporter is reliant on systems calls that Apple provides to get the status codes off the drives…

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Thinking with Roger

It took a while but i eventually made it through to the end of ‘Shadows of the Mind‘. Most thought provoking book i’ve read in a long time.

As you can see from that link it’s rather controversial. The AI community has spent a great deal of time belittling the idea that it is impossible to build a computational (turing machine based) consciousness. Penrose, however, is more than up to the task of defending his work. It’s a rather strange situation for me, a little like the case of nuclear fusion – the big breakthrough in AI is always just around the corner.

Someone coming at this believing the consensus point of view (of AI) would be surprised that the massive increase in computing power over the last 20 years hasn’t resulted in a corresponding increase in AI ability. Maybe the comparison isn’t fair, but surely by this point we’d be able to have a computer with general inquisitiveness (for example) of a new born. Not even close.

All of which makes it all the more surprising to me that a book that attempts to plot an alternative way forward is so badly received. From my perspective, outside of the (dismal) science of computing (honestly, it’s as much a “science” as economics!) it seem pretty logical. If there are areas of human thought that (provably)  cannot be reduced down to algorithmic operations, isn’t it time to consider that maybe trying to reduce all human thought down to algorithmic operations isn’t the answer? Reading some of the criticism (esp. McDermott, linked above) you’d have to wonder if he’s actually read the book, or is simply offended by the idea that there may be limitations to what hard AI can achieve!

For my part, i found the mathematical formalism stuff difficult to follow (but well enough explained that i could get by). The section on quantum effects, superposition, reduction was something of a flashback to university lectures, and therefore quite good fun to relive. And the final section on the micro (or is it nano?) structure of the brain amazingly thought provoking.

I don’t know if Penrose’s specific conclusions (that quantum effects might play a role in the process of consciousness) are all that controversial. There are obviously holes in our understanding of brain function. Therefore putting forward a hypothesis that might fill in some of those holes, even if it is at odds with the existing thinking, is just what is needed. This isn’t like climate denial where most of the answers are known, but unfortunately unpalatable to many who would resist the logical conclusions. The brain really is deeply mysterious, and therefore new ideas should be welcomed in usual scientific spirit!  

Decline and Fall

There was a big climate change meeting in Copenhagen last week:

Don’t be misled by the recent cold winter in Europe and north America – or by this week’s conference of vocal climate change sceptics in New York. Pay attention instead to the larger gathering in Copenhagen, where mainstream scientists have issued a series of dire warnings that global warming is proceeding far faster than the scenarios published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change two years ago.

Many politicians who believe in global warming have taken some comfort from the IPCC consensus opinion that average temperatures will rise by about 2°C this century, an increase to which the world could just about adapt. Unfortunately that view is out of date, according to recent evidence presented in Copenhagen and elsewhere – ranging from the rapid thinning of Arctic ice to the unexpected vulnerability of the Amazon rainforests to drought and heat.

Rather sobering to think that that quote is taken from the Financial Times…

I’ve not really been paying enough attention to such things for the last couple of months, there has been another ‘meltdown’ going on that demanded attention and understanding. While that situation is obviously far from over (as previously noted, i think it’ll drag on for at least a decade) the general outcome doesn’t appear to be in much doubt.

We are going to see a decline and fall of anglo-saxon capitalism, and with it an overall subsidence in the wealth of the world. Trillions of dollars of wealth has already been eradicated since mid 2007, and as the basis of so much of that wealth (property) is still falling in value, there isn’t much reason to assume that the leveraged decent is going to ease up.

Along with that, there has been a huge decline in world trade, the sentiment has turned against consumption. Fear and frugality are the order of the day. The longer the descent continues, the more people are swindled out of their savings / pensions / “investments” (come on, they were bets!), the longer it’s going to take to get back to what we considered normal. Of course, that ignores the idea that we’re living in normal times, and that all we were doing was pissing away our inheritance…

Where does this leave of beleaguered environment? On one hand the collapse of economic activity will probably end up buying the next generation some time (remember, we are only just starting to pay for the sins of our fathers). The reduction in world trade, transportation, tourism, industrial activity means that more coal / oil will stay in the ground… for longer.

However, on the other hand, it seems very unlikely that America, China, India, and Europe are going to pushing through the kind of radical investment programs that are needed to de-carbonise their economies. In times of economic hardship, the environment suffers, a luxury that cannot be afforded, and a hardship that can be spread thinly enough to never really be an issue… especially if you’re worried about where your next meal is coming from! More than that – there is a good chance that some of the G20 nations are actually bankrupt, and unable to take on any more debt.

Nick, The Modern Mystic, over on YouTube makes a good case for believing that we are now at a point where the governments of the world will have to admit failure, and overturn 500+ years of contract law, or tough it out through societal collapse / civil unrest, with un-payable debts. The later seems unpalatable, while the former seems merely impossible…